A TRUE STORY BASED ON LIES [By Jennifer Clement]. If you’re working nine or ten hours a day, and given the state of the Mexican economy, it’s impossible to survive if you’re not working nine or ten hours a day then in this context, children from well-off families have more opportunities. This however is the story of Leonora, a child from deep poverty who together with her siblings collects twigs from the nearby woods to make into brooms. Then, out of the blue she is offered a place and an education of sorts in a convent and then, aged thirteen, is chosen by one of the well-off Anglo-Mexican families in Mexico City to be a maidservant in the household. Set in contemporary times where indigenous people and languages are condemned to a marginality infinitely greater than that of her employers and their friends, every aspect of her existence is controlled by her new employer, a 25-year old young woman with two children. In an early chapter, Leonora buys two ducks as pets from out of her own meagre salary for the older child, a boy, who hangs them from a tree in the garden and stones them to death for fun.
In a country that’s racist, criminally poor and covered with unmarked mass graves fun is a fairly personal form of expression. His parents forgive him.
Taught by the nuns in the convent to never say no, Leonora cleans and works and acts as wet-nurse to the kids while their mother dozes and watches daytime TV soaps, with only one day off a week. But she says yes once too often and becomes pregnant and from there the tale gathers pace.
It’s a short book, only 156-pages but as nearly all the reviewers confirm, it packs an emotional punch.
THE TOKYO ZODIAC MURDERS [By Soji Shimada]. This is dire. Just wasted a week of my life plowing through it.
It’s a very famous Locked Room Mystery which is by convention a murder in a room where all means of entry and exit are sealed. So the question becomes, how did the murderer get in and how did they get out. When it works you should be able to re-read a locked-room mystery twice apparently, the second time recognising the clues and seeing how the whole thing fits together. Read it twice? Errr . . .
Set in Tokyo in the middle of the 20th Century, it’s a clever premise. An artist writes a note, later discovered by the police stating his intention of murdering his six daughters and using the body-parts to create a kind of Frankenstein monster which he calls Azoth. The girls are duly killed but after the artist himself is murdered, so who killed the daughters? Who killed the artist? Above and beyond that is the fact that the artist is found dead in a locked room with bars on the windows and a lockable bar on the inside of the entry-door that we are told can only and absolutely be locked in place from the inside.
Then follows about 250-pages of misdirection. I couldn’t be bothered. Perhaps if I had been stuck in a hospital waiting room for half a day and read it quickly in one or two sessions, I might have got caught up in it but in fact there are so many Japanese characters and names to remember that I was soon in difficulty: who was Tae again? What was Tokiko’s relationship to the artist? Forgotten already.
The answer when it comes bears zero relationship to the clues that we have been given such as they are. For example, one of the key episodes is the discovery of Yukiko’s body. Yukiko had a birthmark we are told three pages from the end. The totally secure bar on the front door is released from the outside thus . . . ‘Then I went outside. After putting my handbag under the eaves where there was no snow, I threw a rope I’d prepared to the sliding bar from the window and managed to hook it and then pull it to lock the door’ [my italics]. If there is one thing I know something about it is locking bars and I would say that this is impossible: you might get lucky after perhaps a hundred tries but that would take what three, maybe four hours of standing outside exposed in minus zero temperatures in heavy snow. Pernickety? Well, the whole mystery is premised on the legitimacy of the clues we are given and if there is a chink in the clues, the mystery breaks down.
THE VEGETARIAN [By Han Kang]. This book won the Booker International prize in 2016.
It has outstanding reviews; strange, sad, beautiful and compelling being just some of them. More or less all of them describe it as transgressive, a meaningless word that I would never use myself. What’s it about? Bulimia, would be the short answer. It’s a kind of essay on what it means to be anorexic and how no-one understands, no-one even tries to comprehend just assumes you must be mentally ill and needing treatment or in this case, force-feeding. It’s written by a woman, Han Kang who is South Korean and it is set in Korean suburbia amongst a fairly normal cross-section of Korean society.
It attempts to be surreal and Kafka-esque and I think it probably succeeds; it certainly isn’t superficial and there are moments of great emotional resonance. There is a very raw, full-on sex scene around quarter of the way along which I hadn’t anticipated and I am not at all certain that its only purpose is to shock . . . which it does. It’s consensual and isn’t abusive in my opinion but Amazon reviewers appear to judge it differently. Most Amazon reviewers think the novel weird: it is, but weird good. I am all for something that isn’t the same old, same old in fact, I am thinking of reading it again.